6 Places to Visit in Kyoto You Won’t Find in Your Guidebook

Unique things to do in Kyoto

‘Wa’ is what it means to be Japanese – a way of living that encapsulates centuries of reflection, creation and inspiration. And, to Steve Wilde and Michelle Mackintosh, authors of ‘Hidden Pockets in Kyoto’, in stores nationally from March 6, 2024, Kyoto is the living, breathing embodiment of ‘wa’.

“It’s a city of tradition and history, where the influence of ancient temples and shrines, with their deep spiritual roots, touches every aspect of daily life,” say Wilde and Mackintosh.

There are so many temples and shrines in Kyoto that it’s impossible to visit them all – in fact, you’re likely only to visit two or three on a short visit, they say. The city offers gardens, mountain walks and small galleries and museums.

“Sticking to the internet favourites will net you a lot of wonderful, but noisy and crowded experiences,” they say. “So it’s always good to investigate a little further and uncover some of the treasure which exists further out, or has mostly been missed from the tourist radar for reasons unknown, or perhaps because it takes that little bit of adventure to get to there.”

Ahead, Wilde and Mackintosh share some of those more unique things to do in Kyoto. From a tucked-away, minimalist coffee shop, to a beautiful botanical garden that many seem to have forgotten existed, these are just a few of the many spots shared in their book ‘Hidden Pockets in Kyoto’.

Walden Woods Kyoto

508-1 Sakaecho Shimogyo-ku

Walden Woods, in the backstreets of Kyoto not far from Kyoto station, is a neo-modernist, surrealist white cube encapsulating the minimalist spirit of the city. Its stark interior invites you to sip coffee in an imagined forest in the snow.

Walden Woods Kyoto
Image: Walden Woods

“The vivid space is a blank canvas that evokes the solitude of Thoreau’s novel Walden. It’s unlikely that Thoreau could get a decent coffee alone in the woods, but here you are in luck. Choose from the classics, including Americano, espresso or latte, while plant-based drinkers can order theirs with soy milk. Matcha latte and chai are also on the menu, however, it’s the pour-over Walden Woods original single-origin and blend coffees (their beans are roasted on site) their disciples flock here for.

“We ordered their original blend pour-over, ginger syrup latte which came in their signature cups delivered on a tin tray, along with their fruit sandwich. Make sure to buy some Walden Wolf Blend beans and a candle, so you can attempt to re-create the experience at home.”

Pizzeria Mama

1-5 Arashiyama Nishiichikawacho Nishikyo-ku

“On the quieter backstreets on the Hankyu Arashiyama station side of the Togetsu-kyo Bridge, large white noren (traditional fabric curtains) wave you into a bright space, where you’ll find the destination hotel of Arashiyama House Mama and Pizzeria Mama.

“An old building reimagined by DAY Inc and run by Akihiko Watanabe, the restaurant features original vaulted wooden ceiling and large windows that gaze out onto beautiful gardens. The décor is sparse — stark, potted trees and a polished concrete floor are designed so that the diners can ‘complete the space’.

Pizzeria Mama
Image: Pizzeria Mama

“Pizza sets come with soup and salad and the pizza base is perfectly crispy, chewy wood-fired heaven. Toppings include sardines, mackerels and cheese and honey and flavours are piquant. Other dishes include pork roast and various pasta dishes. This is a popular place enjoyed by a stylish set, families and gourmands. If you are staying at the hotel, book a table when you check-in. Visitors can try their luck on the day but wait times can extend to two hours.”

Vegan Ramen Uzu

146 Umenokicho, Nakagyo-ku

“On a non-descript street off the general tourist radar, Uzu sits in an architecturally renovated machiya (traditional wooden townhouse). The black-box exterior with wooden inset door and discreet signage prepares the clientele for UZU’s take on ‘concept dining’.

“Enter the darkened room, where a ‘digital painting’ of ever-moving and evolving calligraphy brushstrokes generated by renowned international art collective teamLab, covers the back wall, and is reflected in the surface of the table, enveloping the space. Other diners are mere shadows, and the ponderous soundtrack becomes part of the whole experience — hushed voices are requested here.

Image: Uzu

“Awarded a Bib Gourmand in 2023’s Michelin Guide, Vegan Ramen UZU gets the most out of Kyoto’s Rausu kelp, shiitake and vegetables, steeping the stock for twelve hours to deliver a ramen with a potency of taste that rivals the piquant pork staple.

“Types of ramen include Kokiake (soy sauce), Yamabuki (spicy miso) and Tsukemen (sichuan pepper spicy miso). We paired the mountain herbs ramen with some tasty miyama gomi yuba rolls and a rose hip and hibiscus kombucha and finished with some delectable vegan ice-cream desserts.”

Botanical Gardens

Shimogamo Hangicho Sakyo-ku

“On a fine day, grab a picnic basket, stuff it with sushi and sake, and head to the Botanical Gardens. It’s a great escape – and people seem to have forgotten it exists, so you could be wandering alone through the iris garden, bonsai exhibits, lotuses, peonies, roses and various exotics. Spend time hunting through the incredible list of represented species.

Botanical Gardens Kyoto
Image: Getty Images

“It’s fascinating to contrast the more Western, contemporary style of garden with the many ancient Japanese gardens. The low entry fee is worth it for the huge conservatory alone. The children’s play area is a special treat too: it has tall, colourful toadstools, which open up, revealing libraries of vintage children’s books.

“Photograph loved ones peeking out from behind the giant, magical fungi. The gardens are also a good spot for sakura (cherry blossom) viewing, notable because the blossoms hold on just that little bit longer in the enchanted soil. If you’re in Kyoto a day or two out from sakura season, the Botanical Gardens might just save the day.”

Bishamon-do Temple

18 Anshuinariyamacho Yamashina-ku

“Around a 20-minute walk from suburban Yamashina station, the Bishamon-do temple has been dedicated to the worship of Bishamonten, one of the Four Heavenly Kings of Buddhism, since 703 CE. It was relocated to this site in 1195. The central Niomon gate overlooks 56 steep stone steps and frames the colours of the maples beautifully.

“The temple also features an earlier example of the Kyoto dragons — Kanu Eishoku’s ink dragon has eyes that follow you like a painting in a haunted house. Bishamon-do is also known as a spot for sakura (cherry blossom) viewing and features a famous 150-year-old cherry tree.

Bishamon-do Temple Kyoto
Image: Getty Images

“You can relax over tea and wagashi (Japanese sweets) at the rustic cafe on the grounds or take a picnic bento box and enjoy it while admiring the beautiful surrounding foliage. Hikers note, the forest path to Bishamon-do from Nanzen-ji temple is one of Kyoto’s best half- to one-day trails.”

Raku Museum

87−1 Aburahashizumecho Kamigyo-ku

“The 16th-century tea master, Sen Rikyu’s wabi-sabi (perfection in imperfection) aesthetic for the tea ceremony was a major influence on the early forms of raku pottery. The simple, unadorned tea bowls weren’t smooth or polished but instead reflected a rural eclecticism by being misshaped and tactile.

“The Raku Museum, on a quiet suburban backstreet, expounds the raku philosophy in a series of ceramic pieces, some that date back centuries, perfectly curated and displayed in darkly lit rooms where light falls on each object, illuminating the deliberately imperfect surfaces.

“The current incarnation of the museum dates to 1855 and is a space that reflects the ceramic style – unfussy and yet emanating mystical energy. Raku was based around a series of set rules: handmade ceramics with a distinct method of glazing and firing which is still practiced today.

“A standout feature of Raku-yaki is the restriction to black or red glazes, creating a uniform presentation of elegant monotone ceramics. Rules are made to be broken however and colour seeps into the work.”

Related: Ever Dreamt of a 6 Month-Long Jaunt to Japan? Now’s Your Chance

Related: 6 Dishes to Sample in Osaka, One of Japan’s Best Foodie Cities

Read more stories from The Latch and subscribe to our email newsletter.